Friday, April 24, 2009

The 1%

An article in Velonews compares the power output of Marco Pinotti power meter data from last year's Fleche Wallone with this year's. What's striking about the comparison is that during the 5 hour race, Pinotti averaged 50w more than last year, yet despite riding at a significantly lower effort, he placed much higher this year. In the explanation for this apparent discrepancy lies the root of bike racing's perfidity: Pinotti hid in the peloton this year, whereas last year he established a long breakaway.

Yesterday I road for slightly over an hour at Hains with my brother. While we were doing intervals he talked about a book called Why We Run, by Bernd Heinrich. Heinrich apparently is obsessed with the inexplicable speed of pronghorned antelope, who can cover 5 miles in 7 minutes, apparently. Heinrich discovers that they run so absurdly fast because, at one time, there were predators--now extinct--fast enough to chase them down. Through gradual evolution that affected everything from their heart to their mitochondria to their musculature in incremental ways, pronghorns became the Cancellaras of the animal world.

The changes, Heinrich notes, were small alterations to multiple systems, not a complete re-engineering. An antelope is still a goat except that every system which contributes to speed has been tweeked--not redesigned.

I think we can apply this concept to cycling training. Not, of course, that we can change our genes even incrementally. But we can get a lot better on the whole by getting a little bit better at a bunch of tiny things. This is not only true of training, where a .01% difference can mean 10 minutes in longer races, but also in racing itself.

The closer we get to the top in cycling, the more important those incremental steps--the 1% approach--are. That is, the more we move toward the edge of the bell curve, the more significant are any incremental changes. What separates a pro from me is probably 5-10%, but what separates one pro from another is < 1%. It's no coincidence that Lance searched for tiny advantages, that his nickname was "Mr. Millimeter," that he measured ever bit of food he ate, that he was among the first to train with a power meter, and that he is considered one of the bigger a-holes around--because his accomplishments were the result of obsessive attention to minutia, and probably a shit-ton of drugs. I don't see how he could have shirked a 5% advantage (offered by substances like EPO), given his obsession with the 1%, although I suppose it's possible.

Another element of the 1% approach is to pay attention to different capabilities: 5 minute max power, 20 minute max power, power/weight ration, sustainable threshold, and max power. Pinotti's 5 minute max power in 2009 is less than in 2008, but his 2009 20 minute max power (359w) is higher than in 2008. Thus, different strategies require different abilities. And no matter what anyone says, part of racing is knowing your opponents. You race against other people, not the clock. Pinotti's 2008 time is faster than his 2009 time, but his 2008 placing (102nd) is much worse than in 2009 (40th).

The last element is about strategic choices and tactics. Matching ability with choices. This is probably something that only comes with race experience, and not really something that can be learned otherwise. It involves risk taking, because your choices are not the only factor--the choices of 70 other cyclists intervene. To me, it's the best part of cycling, because it's about understanding the 1%.


qualia said...

I cannot recommend the Heinrich book highly enough. Let me just say this... if *The Rider* is, as it were, a great one-day classic, *Why We Run* is a grand tour: my favorite running book. (And I have read a lot of them, though not Murakami's.)

I need about 20% to be competitive, I think. But the upside is that unlike you, and unlike the pros, I am in the middle of a bunch of low-hanging fruit.

tome said...

Calvini... what's this about you racing amongst people who are akin to pros?